Friday, August 14, 2015

Primes and a paradox

       Canadian poet Alice Major has loved and admired science and mathematics since girlhood and this background brings to her mathy poems both charm and amazement -- qualities that those of us who seriously studied mathematics easily lack.  At the recent BRIDGES conference I had a chance to hang out with Alice for a while and to purchase her latest collection, Standard Candles  (University of Alberta Press, 2015). Such fun to experience her views of infinities and paradoxes, of triangles and symmetries and formulas and ... .  
     Alice has given me permission to post two of her poems here; read on and enjoy "The god of prime numbers" and "Zeno's paradox."  

The god of prime numbers     by Alice Major

-– trinity, quintic, indivisible seven -–
visits her creation
often in its early moments

then draws away for ever-lengthening periods

oh, how long must we inhabit
a dreary world of common factors
‘til her return?

Zeno's paradox     by Alice Major

We've solved the paradox.
Motion is possible. The arrow's flight ends
even if its fractions interlock
to infinity –- half a distance, yet again
half, and half .… We know this series sums
to a finite thunk and shudder.
                                        And we know
the thrumming calculus of life comes
to completion. I am half-way through
my count of years -- half-way to knowing
all I will know.  Yet something stalls
in the air, an infinitely subtle slowing.
Of whatever I have learned when the arrow falls
           silent, one last sliver will be lost.
           A final distance will remain uncrossed.


  1. Until now I thought I was probably the only person who'd written a poem about Zeno! I like yours. He's mine, which is about the dichotomy paradox:

    Zeno had discovered, much to our dismay,
    that to get from A to B, you first must go half way.
    But to make it to the middle, you must first go a quarter,
    And so divide the distances, each one ever shorter.

    However, as this process repeats ad infinitum,
    Zeno never came across a smallest spatial item,
    Which he could at first traverse, and so to his amusement,
    Zeno had showed us the absurdity of movement.

    For no set of tasks which is infinite in number,
    Can we ever finish, when its has no last member.
    So a journey we can’t start, let alone complete,
    Is what we should accept, if space is not discrete

    1. Thanks, Sarah, for dropping by. I will send on to Alice Major, your compliment on her poem.